Judging the Royals

Is it ever OK for a pitcher to throw a scuffed baseball?

A bucket of baseballs at the Kansas City Royals’ spring training in Surprise, Ariz.
A bucket of baseballs at the Kansas City Royals’ spring training in Surprise, Ariz. The Associated Press

We’ve all seen it: a pitcher bounces a ball in the dirt so the umpire asks the catcher for the ball and then makes a big show of throwing that ball out of play. Being bounced in the dirt at a high velocity scuffs the ball. But if a batter hits a three-hopper to short and the shortstop bounces the throw to first base, there’s a good chance the defense will throw the ball around the infield and then hand that scuffed ball back to the pitcher.

So whether he wants to or not, sooner or later a big-league pitcher will find himself standing on the mound holding a scuffed baseball.

At that point a lot of pitchers will look at the ball, then hold it up and shake it back and forth; that’s the signal for a new ball. The pitcher will take it upon himself to throw the scuffed ball out of play and ask for a new one. Which might make some of his veteran teammates mad; the pitcher just got handed a scuffed baseball and now that pitcher wants to give it back.

But isn’t that the right thing to do?

Depends on how you look at it.

What the rulebook says

(c) (8.02) Pitching Prohibitions

The pitcher shall not:

(1) While in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitcher’s plate, touch the ball after touching his mouth or lips, or touch his mouth or lips while he is in contact with the pitcher’s plate. The pitcher must clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate. EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his hand.

(2) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove;

(3) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing;

(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;

(5) deface the ball in any manner; or

(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 6.02(c)(2) through (5) or what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball or “emery” ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands.

(7) Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.

That’s an edited version of the part of the rulebook that deals with doctored baseballs. I took out some explanatory stuff and the part about worshipping false idols and honoring thy father and mother. (Although come to think of it, I might be mixing up the baseball rule book and the Ten Commandments.)

What the pitchers say

It might be slicing the baloney pretty thin, but ask big-league pitchers about throwing a scuffed baseball and most of them will say it’s wrong to scuff the baseball yourself, but if they hand you a scuffed baseball and tell you it’s OK to throw it, that’s a different story. The pitcher has not defaced the ball and the umpires have decided to keep the ball in play. And if the pitcher throws a scuffed ball, he can always say he didn’t notice the scuff before delivering the pitch.

So why do so many pitchers give a scuffed baseball back?

I’ve yet to hear a pitcher say they give the ball back because it’s the right thing to do; they give the scuffed ball back because they don’t know how to throw one — veteran players suggest they learn.

How to throw a scuff ball

After asking pitchers about throwing a scuffed ball, the advice I got was to hold the ball with the scuff on the opposite side of where I wanted the ball to go. If I wanted the ball to run away from a left-handed batter I would hold the scuff on the first-base side of the ball. If I wanted the pitch to run away from a righty I’d hold the scuff on the third-base side of the ball.

But if you want to control the pitch, you gotta practice; take a scuffed baseball and play catch with it in the afternoon. If you want to use it in a game, figure out how to make it move the way you want it to.

Scuffing a baseball is wrong … so get the catcher to do it for you

There’s always something happening if you know where to look; even between innings.

The pitcher gets eight warmup tosses and before the last one he’ll make a motion over his shoulder back toward second base; he’s reminding the catcher to throw the ball down to second after the last warmup pitch. The catcher will hold his hand out to the side to remind the middle infielders a throw is coming their way and whichever infielder is taking the throw will hold his hand out to signal that he’ll be at the bag when the ball arrives.

Now here’s the thing to watch for:

Every once in a while, the catcher will sneak a look at the home-plate umpire and if he’s not watching, the catcher will bounce the throw to second. If one of the umpires notices the bounced throw he’ll take the ball out of play, but if nobody sees the ball hit the dirt it’s tossed around the infield and then handed to the pitcher.

Technically nobody has done anything wrong, but the pitcher is still holding a scuffed baseball.

What the pitcher does next will tell you something about him; he’s too honest to throw a scuffed baseball or he hasn’t taken the time to learn how to cheat.